Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

Dec 16 2016

Facebook Takes On Fake News

Published by under Culture and Society

facebook1Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced that his platform is now going to have third parties review news stories and news sources and label what they think is “fake news.” Facebook will then demote those stories in their news feed.

They have tapped Snopes,, ABC News, and PolitiFact to be their third-party reviewers.

While this move has been controversial, I think it’s a fantastic idea, although of course not without its risk.

In the last decade we have been moving away from traditional edited sources of news to social media, which blends news and opinion and has essentially removed any editorial barriers. This has been a boon to content producers, with many upsides. The barrier to sharing your information or opinions with the world has essentially been removed. This has led to many great things, like scientists sharing their field of expertise with the public.

There is also somewhat of a meritocracy, with quality writers rising in popularity. People have access to much more information and many more viewpoints.

However, the barrier has also been removed for spreading misinformation. Content creators and websites have sprung up catering to every extreme ideology. This is nothing new but in the past marginalized ideas had marginalized distributions. This too was a double-edged sword – it kept out a lot of nonsense, but also made it difficult (but not impossible) for minority but legitimate opinions to be heard. Without barriers, every voice can potentially be heard, but it became more difficult to distinguish real news from fake news, mainstream from fringe opinions, facts from misinformation, and quality journalism from ideological hack jobs.

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98 responses so far

Dec 08 2016

Scientists – Welcome to the Skeptical Movement

sterling-law-buildingDonald Trump has just named Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt, to head the EPA. Pruitt is a known denier of the science of anthropogenic global warming, and in fact has spent much of his time as attorney general suing the EPA over the issue. The conspiracy theorists are now running the show.

This is just the latest in what has been an eye-opening year, which has seen “post-truth” named as word of the year, and has also seen a surge in the notion of “fake news”.

In a recent editorial published in Nature, scientist Phil Williamson argues that:

Challenging falsehoods and misrepresentation may not seem to have any immediate effect, but someone, somewhere, will hear or read our response. The target is not the peddler of nonsense, but those readers who have an open mind on scientific problems. A lie may be able to travel around the world before the truth has its shoes on, but an unchallenged untruth will never stop.

He recounts that his awakening occurred after he had a run-in with Brietbart news over their gross misrepresentation of the science of global warming and ocean acidification. Now he is on a crusade to fight back against pseudoscience online.

For greatest effect, I suggest that we harness the collective power and reach of the Internet to improve its quality. The global scientific community could learn from websites such as travel-review site TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes (which summarizes film and play reviews) and (which quantifies website popularity), and set up its own, moderated, rating system for websites that claim to report on science. We could call it the Scientific Honesty and Integrity Tracker, and give online nonsense the SHAIT rating it deserves.

While I completely agree with Williamson that this is a problem and the scientific community should take responsibility for it, I was struck by the complete absence of awareness in his editorial that there is already a movement of scientists, science communicators, and science enthusiasts who are doing this – the skeptical movement.  Continue Reading »

193 responses so far

Nov 28 2016

Is The Santa Myth Immoral?

Published by under Culture and Society

Portrait of happy Santa Claus sitting at his room at home near Christmas tree and big sack and reading Christmas letter or wish list

Lancet Psychiatry has published an opinion piece (which the media is sometimes confusingly referring to as “research”) in which the authors argue that telling children Santa is real may be harmful and immoral. I have to completely disagree with the authors and I think their opinion reflects only their own biases.

Their primary thesis is that if parents tell their children a lie for years, sometimes maintaining that lie with elaborate deception, and the children inevitably discover the lie, that will undermine the child’s faith in the authority of their parents. They write:

“If they are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?”

The unstated major assumption here is that it is a good thing for parents to be the, “guardians of wisdom and truth.” That is a value judgement, and one with which I completely disagree. I believe children should be taught to question authority, and as they mature to learn that there are no guardians of truth.

It is a delicate balance. You want people (not just children) to respect appropriate authority, but at the same time realize that no authority is infallible. They can be wrong, and you should think for yourself (while recognizing your own limits). That is the destination, and children should be on a journey toward that destination, not reverence for the guardians of truth.

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305 responses so far

Nov 17 2016


Published by under Culture and Society

post-truthThe Oxford Dictionary word of the year is “post-truth” which they define as:

an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

The implication is that we are now living in a post-truth era. Many people would probably point to the outcome of the recent presidential election as evidence of this. Of course there were many factors influencing the election and it’s impossible to tease them all apart, but this seems to legitimately be a factor.

Trump has 15 million Twitter followers, which means that more people likely see his tweets than will watch any news broadcast. Trump just appointed Stephen Bannon to be his chief White House strategist. Bannon was the chairman of Brietbart news, a far right propaganda echochamber.

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182 responses so far

Nov 07 2016

The Dr. Strange Narrative

Published by under Culture and Society

doctor-strange-2I saw the latest Marvel Studios movie, Dr. Strange, last night with a large crowd of friends, many of whom are fellow skeptics. Overall I enjoyed the movie – the acting was very good, there was plenty of good eye candy, and some interesting plot elements. I always enjoy Cumberbatch, although his fake American accent was not great.

For those who are not familiar with the comic book character and have not yet seen the movie, there are some massive spoilers ahead. However, if you have seen the trailer I am probably not going to reveal more that was in there.

As often happens when skeptics see science fiction and fantasy movies, there is a discussion about how the movie treated skeptics and skepticism. There are always two basic sides in the discussion, and individuals can hold both views simultaneously. On the one hand it is disappointing to see the same tired Hollywood tropes about science and belief. On the other hand, the movie is clearly escapist fantasy and therefore should not be held to any standard of realism.

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21 responses so far

Oct 14 2016

Science Is Not Colonialism

science-fallismThis Youtube video is making the rounds. Relax, tape a deep breath, and take a look at the video.

The core point that the primary speaker is making is this: Science is nothing but Western colonialism imposed upon the African people (and presumably others). The only solution is for science to “fall” – she would like to wipe away all of science and start with a blank slate, so that Africans can develop their own knowledge.

She gives as an example that Newton saw an apple fall, made up gravity, wrote down some equations, and now that is scientific truth imposed on the world forever (seriously, I am not exaggerating this one bit).

The other pillar of her position is that in Africa there are practitioners of black magic who can summon a lightening bolt at their enemy. This is not explainable by “Western” science, and yet this is African knowledge, and therefore is an example of Western colonialism suppressing indigenous wisdom.

After stating that practitioners can summon lightening, someone in the audience shouted “It’s not true.” While this might be considered rude, it is an understandable impulse. The response of the moderator was illuminating, in my opinion. She stood up, shamed the audience member, lectured him about the fact that he violated their safe space that is supposed to be free of antagonism, and then forced him to apologize.  Continue Reading »

72 responses so far

Jul 22 2016

Does Race Exist?

World_Map_of_Y-DNA_HaplogroupsIs Pluto a planet or a dwarf planet? Are these two categories even meaningful? The reality is that objects orbiting our sun occur on a continuum from asteroids to planetoids, dwarf planets, and full planets.

Humans like to categorize, however. It helps us wrap our minds around complexity, gives us convenient labels to help sort our knowledge, and hopefully the categories reflect some underlying reality.

Categories often begin as purely observational. We label diseases by what they look like (their signs and symptoms), and then later may have to recategorize them once we know what causes the diseases.

Prior to Darwin, taxonomists categorized all of life according to superficial characteristics. These categories sometimes, but not always, matched the underlying reality of evolutionary relationships. We now have a different system of taxonomy called cladistics, which is purely evolutionary. That’s why birds are now dinosaurs.  Continue Reading »

68 responses so far

May 05 2016

Trump and GMO Labels – Never Means Never

Published by under Culture and Society

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles during a campaign stop, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, in Bluffton, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Donald Trump is the last Republican standing, which means he will be that party’s nominee. I know is this a studiously non-political blog, but this is an issue that transcends politics.

It doesn’t matter if Trump is left, right, liberal, conservative, libertarian, progressive, Democrat or Republican (he seems to be all of those things, sometimes in the same sentence). It doesn’t even matter if he is a Washington insider or outsider.

What should interest American voters the most is that Trump is an arrogant conspiracy theorist. He is an antivaccine loon. Worse, as I pointed out before, he has been publicly corrected on his incorrect views about vaccines for at least a decade, and shows no evidence of modifying his views.

He also (no surprise) denies human-caused global climate change, and even then just loosely parrots standard talking points and gets them wrong. He flirts with 911 truth. He famously is an Obama birther.

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34 responses so far

May 03 2016

Pulling Back Canadian Censorship of Science

Published by under Culture and Society

HarperDuring the recent Harper administration in Canada, scientists doing federal research were effectively censored from speaking with the media. This was a clear attempt at controlling the narrative with regard to environmental issues, from global warming to the effect of fisheries and water quality.

Now that the Harper administration has been replaced by the Trudeau administration, the restrictions are being lifted and scientists are able to talk about how oppressive the Harper restrictions truly were.

Nature has an in depth report, which discusses the totalitarian atmosphere created by the Harper restrictions. Essentially reporters could no longer directly contact federal scientists to verify facts or comment on their research. Rather, they had to go through a series of government officials. This became more frustrating and time consuming than navigating the DMV, and as a result reporters could never get any comment prior to their deadlines.

The end result was that journalists simply stopped trying. There was no point. This effectively cut off communication between federal scientists in Canada and the press.

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11 responses so far

Apr 25 2016

How Old are Classic Fairy Tales?

beautyMy daughters will occasionally relate some bit of culture from their school, such as a joke or prank, that I recognize from my youth four decades ago. It is amazing to think that these memes have persisted in “kiddy culture” largely unchanged over decades, transmitted largely from older to younger children, though siblings or perhaps schoolmates. Of course, some of these memes were already old when I was a child. How far back do they go, I wonder?

Forget slightly crude jokes, what about classic fairy tales? Many of these tales were first recorded in the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm, but they were German academics who were just collecting folktales, not authoring them. Those folktales existed in oral tradition for a long time prior to being written down, but again, how long?

A recent study published in the Royal Society Open Science seeks to answer that question. The authors, Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani, took an evolutionary approach to the question.

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2 responses so far

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